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The judge who decides the fate of Google| GuyWhoKnowsThings


One of Amit P. Mehta's first cases after becoming a federal judge in late 2014 turned out to be a crash course in antitrust.

Sysco, the nation's largest restaurant and cafeteria food distributor, was trying to buy rival US Foods, and the Federal Trade Commission had sued to block the $3.5 billion deal, arguing it would stifle competition.

Judge Mehta told lawyers for both sides that he would need help educating himself. Over the next few months, he was a tireless and brilliant student, according to government and Sysco lawyers, absorbing the details of antitrust law and asking pointed questions about precedent, economic theory and the food distribution business.

After the trial in 2015, Judge Mehta wrote a comprehensive and carefully reasoned 128-page opinion and ordered a temporary suspension of the agreement. Within days, Abandoned Sysco your acquisition plan.

“I didn't like the outcome, but it was a strong, well-thought-out opinion,” said Richard Parker, who represented Sysco and is now a partner at international law firm Milbank.

Judge Mehta, 52, will soon bring his experience in that case to bear on a landmark antitrust decision.

Along with a group of state attorneys general, the The Department of Justice sued Google in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging that the company illegally protected its monopoly on Internet searches, in part by paying billions to persuade companies, including Apple and Samsung, to use its search engine. Google has He responded that he did so. to create the best experience for consumers.

Closing arguments began Thursday and will end Friday in the largest federal lawsuit challenging a tech giant since the government took on Microsoft in the 1990s. Judge Mehta's ruling is also likely to set a precedent for a series of antitrust cases in the United States that are already pending against companies such as Amazon, Apple and Meta.

While the stakes are much higher today, Judge Mehta's handling of the Sysco case — his previous major antitrust ruling — fits a consistent pattern, according to 10 former law firm colleagues, former paralegals, antitrust experts and attorneys. whose cases he has tried. They described the judge as intelligent and careful, a hard worker and a voracious learner who made a genuine effort to carefully weigh both sides of a case.

It does not have a voluminous history of antitrust rulings, aside from Sysco. While it is difficult to predict how he will rule, his judicial conduct to date suggests that whatever he decides in US et al. v. Google will likely prove difficult to overturn on appeal.

“It has been an extremely long and arduous road, and it is not just about this trial but the length of the case,” Judge Mehta said in November as trial testimony came to a close. “I can tell you, as I sit here today, I have no idea what I'm going to do.”

Thursday, questioned the lawyers on both sides, trying to poke holes in their cases. He called out the Justice Department over its accusation that Google stifled innovation in search because of its monopoly, noting that search has changed dramatically in the last decade. But he also pressed Google to explain how Amazon and other companies could be considered rivals in search, saying most consumers would disagree.

Judge Mehta tells his lawyers that a fair trial begins with hard work and preparation. You never know what may be important in a case, he says, so read every page and study every case law citation.

“You learn that there are no limits to the hours you will put in to get it right,” said Alex Haskell, a former law clerk who recently left the White House, where he was a top legislative aide.

Judge Mehta declined an interview request through his office.

Born in India, he came to the United States with his family when he was 1 year old. His father, Priyavadan Mehta, was an engineer; his mother, Ragini Mehta, a laboratory technician. They settled in the suburbs of Baltimore.

Judge Mehta graduated with academic honors from Georgetown University and the University of Virginia School of Law. He left a rising career at Zuckerman Spaeder, a litigation boutique, to become a public defender for five years, taking a pay cut for a different kind of opportunity.

“He really wanted to do that work, representing people who couldn't afford it,” said William W. Taylor III, founding partner of Zuckerman Spaeder.

The stint as a public defender gave Judge Mehta a wealth of courtroom experience – good training for a future judge. He returned to Zuckerman Spaeder and later became a partner, working as a criminal and civil defense attorney on a wide range of cases. In 2014, the Obama administration nominated him to be a federal judge and he was confirmed in December.

Judge Mehta was randomly assigned to the Google case in October 2020, after the Trump administration's Justice Department filed its antitrust lawsuit.

At trial, Judge Mehta asked occasional questions of witnesses, mainly for further explanation and clarification. He has also occasionally deployed humor in otherwise serious proceedings, joking on the trial's opening day that the courtroom full of lawyers had “the largest concentration of blue suits anywhere.”

But his main role in shaping the case came before the trial began, in a ruling last August which reduced its reach.

Judge Mehta decided that the government could proceed to trial on its claim that Google illegally protected its monopoly with multimillion-dollar deals to make its search engine the default on smartphones and browsers. But he dismissed other allegations, including the allegation that Google broke the law by highlighting its own products in search results over those of niche sites such as Amazon and Yelp.

Streamlining the case to what Judge Mehta considered the central issues helped keep trial testimony to 10 weeks, as planned.

At the beginning of the trial, Judge Mehta closed the courtroom largely to the press and public, bowing to arguments put forward by Google and other companies that confidential business information needed to be protected. After an outcry, Justice Mehta opened the court three weeks after the trial.

Justice Mehta later admitted that this was a misstep. “I should have asked the parties a little more about how much of it really needed to be sealed,” he told the court on Oct. 19. “So I will confess.”

Still, crucial court documents remained largely or entirely redacted. And the documents were not routinely shared with the press, even those that did not contain confidential information. After The New York Times, with the support of other news organizations, filed a motion for greater and more timely access to the evidence, Judge Mehta relaxed things a bit and forced Google to open more documents. A remarkable revelation: Google paid Apple and others, more than $26 billion a year to make their search engine the default on smartphones and browsers.

It's unclear what Judge Mehta will rule, legal experts say, in part because he hasn't demonstrated widespread antitrust ideology. But he is known for paying meticulous attention to evidence and evaluating whether it conforms to jurisprudential precedents.

That fact-based, case-by-case approach appeared when he ruled on criminal lawsuits against pro-Trump rioters who were involved in the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Last May, Judge Mehta sentenced Stewart Rhodes, leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia and organizer of the riots, to 18 years in prison after being found guilty of seditious conspiracy. Rhodes, who pleaded not guilty, told the court that he was a “political prisoner.”

In his sentence, Judge Mehta called Mr. Rhodes “a continuing threat and danger to this country, to the republic and the very fabric of our democracy.”

But Judge Mehta treated Matthew Mark Wood, one of the first rioters to enter the Capitol building, very differently. Wood, who was 23 when he participated in the riot, expressed remorse after pleading guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding. Prosecutors requested a sentence of 57 months. But Judge Mehta sentenced Mr Wood to 12 months home detention, telling him: “I don't think this sentence should ruin your life.”

By all indications, Justice Mehta is well read and has diverse cultural tastes. In a music copyright case, he included a footnote saying that he did not need any expert testimony when it came to hip-hop music and lyrics. He had listened to hip-hop for decades, he wrote, and his favorite artists, reflecting his age, included Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake and Eminem.

Judge Mehta is passionate about sports, especially when it comes to the Baltimore Orioles. At an event celebrating his appointment to the bench, Dr. Sanjay Desai, a childhood friend and Johns Hopkins Medicine professor, joked that the judge “will defend the Orioles no matter what the facts are.”

Although his courtroom experience in antitrust matters is limited, Judge Mehta has been involved in the field, serving as judicial representative of the American Bar Association's antitrust division and occasionally speaking at its events.

He presents himself as a “generalist federal judge” and then displays a sophisticated understanding of antitrust law, said William Kovacic, a law professor at George Washington University.

“It's going to be difficult for a reviewing court to say, 'You got it wrong,'” said Kovacic, the former FTC chairman. “They will be inclined to give Judge Mehta the benefit of the doubt that they can trust.” his work.”

David McCabe contributed reports. kitty bennett contributed to the research.


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